Saturday 31 March 2012

On the move

On Wednesday afternoon, half the species I saw won't be here in a month's time. Some have already left. It's that time of year.

This blog looks at some of them seen near al Hayer.

grey wagtail at the lagoons

Grey wagtail is a rare bird in central Arabia mostly I presume because there is so little fast moving water. Two of them have managed to find a spot along the Riyadh river where there is white water. Even so they are only temporary visitors.

white stork over al Hayer

An even rarer temporary visitor apparently is white stork. I was privileged to see a flock of exactly 20 birds fly directly over my head at 5 pm. The time is important because they hesitated whether to land presumably for a night roost. I think they chose unwisely by deciding to travel on. The terrain is mostly desert between al Hayer and Iran. Either way its difficult to image a better stopping place.

ten of the birds circling over the field which I was next to

The two main historical recorders only saw a total of five white stork in central Arabia in total between them so my haul of 20 may be a record itself! 
pallid harrier over a pivot field

Another rare migrant was a pallid harrier seen in a pivot field next to the huge flock of Spanish sparrow written about yesterday. Like the white stork, It didn't hang around. 

common sandpiper

The lagoon area held green sandpiper and at least one of common sandpiper and little stint

little stint

Disappointingly the numbers of waders in the lagoons here has never been high. Perhaps the area is simply too disturbed by the comings and goings of people.

pied wheatear

The area is attracting new waves of pied wheatear. They and the Isabelline wheatear are destined to head north with the exception of a very few Isabelline wheatear are know to over-summer (but probably not breed).

Isabelline wheatear

I was a little bit surprised to still be seeing bluethroat. However there is a difference. All winter I have been seeing orange spot (for northern Europe) but the two on Wednesday were both white spot (cyanecula for south and central Europe). It seems possible that these are passage only and that the orange spots which winter here have gone.


I am still checking all the tawny pipit I see for an odd one. I have never seen a Richard's pipit but I am always on the look out. It will happen eventually as Saudi Arabia is a better bet than anywhere else I have birded recently.

tawny pipit

Historically this has been peak time to see red-tailed shrikes with passage birds supplementing the ones who wintered. This year is no exception. 

Turkestan shrike

There is no doubt that stonechat numbers are already dropping just as other birds are peaking.


Barn swallow numbers are much higher than just the summer breeders who returned a month ago. Judging by their exhaustion having fed themselves over a pivot field, this group  are migrants.

barn swallow

They are several waves of migrants due to start coming in the next week. The most abundant include spotted flycatcher and red-backed shrike. Both will be additions to my Saudi list and there is the prospect of less common ones too such as white throated robin. However the search for them will have to wait for two weeks since I am off to Jizan in the south west next weekend.

Friday 30 March 2012

A huge Spanish sparrow flock

I didn't see my first Spanish sparrow at al hayer until October 27th and he was in a mixed group of house sparrow and a couple of streaked weaver. However from November at least four or five flocks of them were often about in the area.

Since the beginning of March I had n't noticed any until Wednesday. Then I stumbled on the biggest flock of them I have ever seen.

two males detached for a moment from the main flock

At a conservative estimate there were 600 birds. it appears that several of the flocks I had be seeing had merged into a single mega flock. The reason I had seen any in March was probably that it was all or nothing.

distance shot of part of the flock on a tree

In the guides it says there often migrate in a dense flock but how many people have been lucky enough to to be at the start point when they are forming up, ready for the migration?

distance shot of part of the flock moving position

I didnt manage to get a photograph with all the birds in it. Part of the reason was they wouldn't allow me anywhere near close. Remember there were 600 pairs of eyes.

distance shot of part of the flock on a couple of bushes

They would split and reform like a shoal of fish.  I managed to get good photos of the two males at the top of the blog taking advantage when a few split off for a moment but every time they re-formed. 

My best guess is the flock is now along way north and out of Saudi Arabia.

Thursday 29 March 2012

Adding to my western palearctic list

Once a month, I treat myself by flying to other parts of Saudi Arabia to bird. I have wanted to be clear where the boundary of the Western Palearctic is for when I travel to the northern cities. 

The boundary used in the "Handbook of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa: The Birds of the Western Palearctic" is the most accepted. Furthermore, I understand this is followed by the most popular Western Palearctic checklist, i.e. the Association of European Rarities Committees (AERC) list.

The boundary is set at the 27th parallel so Kuwait for example is in but Bahrain is out.

For my purposes I can fly easily to 4 northern Saudi cities. Tabuk, Hail and Arar are well above the 27th parallel but Jubail is exactly on the line. If I bird in the north of the city my observations count but if I bird in the south of the city, they don’t!

avadavat near Riyadh

There are other researchers who put the boundary further south. Some argue for all Arabia to be included. Most argue for all but the south and south west. Either way there is no general acceptance of their arguments for the greater boundaries. I am comfortable to work within the boundaries in the handbook.

common myna near Riyadh

Bird Tour operators market Kuwait as the extreme south eastern edge of the Western Palearctic. This is a bit of a stretch!  The northern suburbs of Jubail in Saudi Arabia work out to be the recognised south east extremity! 

white throated kingfisher near Riyadh

The recognised boundary leaves Riyadh and the rest of the country in the Afro-tropical region. 

By the way you may have noticed the three bird pictures of species that breed near Riyadh. What they all have in common is that they are not Afro-tropical or western palearctic but essentially Indo-Malay. That's another story.

Wednesday 28 March 2012

An unnamed wadi north of Riyadh

On Friday on the way back from Rawdhat Khuraim and some 50 kilometres north east of Riyadh, Lou and I stopped off at a random small wadi. It was just off the main road. We were both interested in what we might see if anything.

This was a ten minute stop and we almost didn't do it justice. Nevertheless there was a selection of birds to be seen. Even here there were both house sparrow and rock pigeon. You simply cannot get away from these two.

woodchat shrike

This small cluster of bushes and the odd tree along the wadi managed to be temporary home for a woodchat shrike.

pied wheatear

Pied wheatear is commonplace at the moment over a very wide variety of habitats including in and near this wadi.


A pair of hoopoe were poking the earth for insects.

common redstart

In the one large tree in our part of this small wadi was yet another a common redstart. They are also proving to be a very common passage migrant. An awful lot of them must winter in South west Saudi Arabia and Yemen to supply this numbers I am seeing unless they cross over from east Africa.


I have made a mental note to look at more small wadis. This chiffchaff didn't really have anywhere to hide. I suspect I might get good views of many warblers this way.

second view of chiffchaff

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Rawdhat Khuraim's parkland

Lou had checked with google earth before we set off for Rawdhat Khuraim on Friday. He had researched an even greener place than the area we visited on first arriving at the oasis.

This required a 4 by 4 (SUV) to reach.  There were two surprises when we got there. First it was even greener than expected and second how many picnickers were present despite the difficulty for cars in reaching it. Luckily for us most of the picnickers stayed within a short walk of their cars. Ironically though we found some of our best birds close to the people anyway.

tree pipit

In this second venue at Rawdhat Khuraim, there were two basic terrains, one is rich meadowland with trees and bushes (and a very European/Turkish feel) and the other is flat, low grassland. The second reminded me of Azeri steppe just after it had rained.  

Both types of habitat had plenty of birds. In the meadowland, there were literally hundreds of house sparrows but it was the other birds which caught the eye. One such bird was tree pipit. We met a small flock of these which incidentally must be on passage. They were the first I have seen in Saudi Arabia.

a green part of the park

The bushes were obviously a migrant trap. For example there were warblers in quite a few of them. We didn't really do them justice as we could have spent all day on them. Nevertheless we looked hard at a couple of bushes where we had a chance of a prolonged view of some warblers.

common whitethroat in flight

In one small bush there was a common whitethroat. Once again this was the first time I have seen this bird in Saudi Arabia. He was quite showy and made life easy for us.

back view of the common whitethroat

The back view allows you to see the rusty wing panels. This was an easy identification!

There were rattling sounds of sylvia warblers in several other bushes as we walked past but the bushes in many cases were very thick.


The most common warbler was still chiffchaff. I suppose the cooler than normal weather has kept them back longer this year. There were a smaller number of willow warbler about too.

common redstart

Common redstart is clearly more common than the historical recorders had lead me to believe, I seem to be picking them up with impunity at the moment.

view of flat low grassland at the park

The flat grassland was popular with larks. 

crested lark

Crested lark was here but the main lark we saw was short-toed lark (just like in the part of Rawdhat Khuraim visited earlier).

two short-toed lark

There were Isabelline wheatear, northern wheatear and pied wheatear in the meadowland but there were more numerous in the short grassland.

female pied wheatear

A full list of the birds seen at Rawdhat Khuraim and complied by Lou Regenmorter is shown below. If you look at the list you will notice pallid harrier. Its worth a comment. There were lots of small birds of prey but the highlight for me was a beautiful and pristine male pallid harrier. It was seen several times during our walkabout but I only have two blurred shots to show for him.

The full species list at Rawadhat Khuraim

Arabian babbler
European bee-eater
White cheeked bulbul
Collared dove
Laughing dove
Namaqua dove
Crested lark
Short-toed lark
Rock pigeon 
Red-throated pipit 
Tawny pipit 
Tree pipit 
Lesser kestrel
Pallid harrier
Isabelline shrike (Daurian)
Isabelline shrike(Turkestan)
Southern gray shrike
Woodchat shrike
House sparrow
Pale rock sparrow
Barn swallow 
Common swift 
Black bush robin
Common redstart
Rufous bush robin
Common whitethroat
Willow warbler
Isabelline wheatear
Northern wheatear
Pied wheatear

Monday 26 March 2012

First stop at Rawdhat Khuraim

Rawdhat Khuraim is large oasis in the desert, 100 kilometres north east of Riyadh. Part of it is royal estate but the rest is normally open to the general public. In total it covers more than 15 square kilometres. The water table must be just below the surface as the area is verdant in many places.

Lou Regenmorter and I birded it for 6 hours on Friday. I came away with 7 new birds on my Saudi birds list. One was a "lifer". 

We started out by birding the area quite close to the entrance to the royal estate. It is a varied mix of grassland, bushes and trees grading into semi-desert.

red-throated pipit

We almost immediately noticed that the ground was thick with pipits. Two darker ones caught our eye. We tracked them and found to our pleasure that they were red-throated pipit. This was the first time I had seen this bird in Saudi Arabia though I knew it well from my days in Libya. 

They will make their way north soon.

view from near the semi desert towards the bushes. 

The vast majority of pipits though were tawny pipit. This not a known breeder in central Arabia so even despite the large numbers they will be moving on up north.

tawny pipit

The terrain here is also very suitable for wheatears at least on passage and in winter. 

pied wheatear

The most common wheatear on the day was pied wheatearThough not as numerous as pied wheatear, the numbers of Isabelline wheatear and northern wheatear were still significant.

Isabelline wheatear

Even with all the practice, I am getting with wheatears, separating some female northern wheatear from some Isabelline wheatear doesn't get any easier. The one above was very tricky. The forebrow looks white and there appears to be an isolated black alula on the wing so Isabelline wheatear it is. 

 northern wheatear

There was another bird foraging on the ground. I didn't recognise it at the time. It was only on return, some book reading and an email to an expert for verification that I was sure it was pale rock sparrow.   It's very blandness was an aid to identification!

There was a small flock of six of them which weren't too shy and allowed me close contact.

pale rock sparrow

This was my one "lifer" of the day and it wasn't even a target species.


As in virtually everywhere I have been in Saudi Arabia in the past few months there were some stonechat. I only photographed this one, a Siberian stonechat  because its head was unusually dark.

Very near to where many people like to picnic was a very high concentration of Arabian babbler. And because they are so used to non-threatening people they were quite tame.

Arabian babbler

We discovered a young Arabian babbler being fed. This fledgling was within a few metres of picnickers.

fledgling Arabian babbler

After a considerable time we walked out of the grassland area into the drier patches. To begin with we had only limited success. It appeared only hoopoe  preferred this area. Then we saw a lark. It stood still and allowed close inspection while others in its group moved around. It was a short-toed lark and the group were first ones I have seen since arriving in Saudi Arabia. The books even say they breed here even though it is further south than nearly all other known sites in the Middle East.

short-toed lark

They aren't as easy to identify here as in Libya because there the sub species has a distinct rufous crown.

frontal view of short-toed lark

In one of the few larger bushes in this drier area was a rufous bush robin.

rufous bush robin

Two extra-ordinarily tame Namaqua dove were a few feet away.

pair of namaqua dove

And then there was one final another pleasant surprise in this area. A group of European bee-eater was making its way through. It was only the day before (at Al Hayer)  that I had seen my first blue-cheeked bee-eater of the season. I wasn't expecting this to be followed up so quickly with a sighting of the other large bee-eater on passage. Furthermore unlike the blue-cheeked bee-eater, I failed to see any European bee-eater on autumn passage. 

European bee-eater

So this was the first time European bee-eater has made it on to my Saudi list of species.

After this final sighting, we headed back to the car to explore a second part of Rawdhat Khuraim. The next blog looks at what we found.